Adolescence was tough on me. I was a total geek, in an era before that was cool. I was a social misfit, totally uncomfortable in my high school setting. I worked out a deal with my parents and the school authorities that allowed me to graduate a year early, simply because I hated school life as I knew it. I was immature, and I did not fit in.
I took the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) and had only one noteworthy score. I scored toward the feminine side of the Masculinity-Femininity Scale. I did some reading about the M-F scale and learned that it primarily measured how rigidly a person conforms to very stereotypical masculine or feminine roles. I was certainly no hunk, no dude.
In my rural Pennsylvania culture, real men hunted deer, raced cars, and pursued athletics. They did not excel in math; they did not read Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope. I was not your typical male adolescent.
I went on to college and discovered with relief in my General Psychology class that it was okay to be myself; there was no need for me to conform to cultural gender stereotypes (e.g., I didn’t have to aspire to play for the Steelers).
I studied in my social psychology class about those gender stereotypes. The gender research argued (though the evidence did not always support the logic) that the most mature individuals were those who scored high on both masculine stereotypes (of assertiveness and task-oriented behaviors) and on feminine stereotypes (of nurturance and relationship-oriented behaviors).
There is space for all individuals to be both assertive and nurturing, as reflected by C. S. Lewis, when he wrote in “A Grief Observed,” “It is arrogance in us to call frankness, fairness, and chivalry ‘masculine’ when we see them in a woman; it is arrogance in them, to describe a man’s sensitiveness or tact or tenderness as ‘feminine.’”
Now, decades later, the concepts of masculinity and femininity are so confusing and controversial that a number of leading psychologists have suggested that the terms be abandoned.
Over time, I came to accept my nerdy traits. I met mature and healthy guys who did not know or even care to know the size of their car’s engine. I learned to meld my traits, whether they were stereotypically masculine or feminine, into the self I was becoming, as a mature and contributing member of my society. I learned to separate my physical gender from societal stereotypes.
Now, in the 21st century, it seems that the rules have done a complete about-face. It is no longer acceptable for a biological male to practice certain feminine stereotypes. Instead of allowing some men to be relationship-oriented nurturing individuals, and allowing some women to be assertive and task-oriented, it is now essential to have a biological sex that matches one’s notion of gender stereotypes.
So here’s the danger: Today if you don’t find a match, culture is increasingly telling you that you need to change your biological sex.
Years ago, as an adolescent, the message of my society was that if my biological sex did not match my sex-typed behaviors, then I needed to change my behaviors. Now the thinking has reversed. If my biological sex does not match my own sex-typed conceptions, then I need to change my biological sex.
Both of these approaches are wrong.
I much prefer the freedom to choose my behaviors and conceptions without regard to my biological sex. There should not be any mandate that one’s preferences and desires match some cultural notion of the ideal male or female.
The current obsession with the idea of being transgender has become the latest adolescent hurdle, but it is based on a faulty sense of what it means to be male or female. Some claim to be a female trapped in a male body; others claim to be a male trapped in a female body. These claims assume that the concepts of maleness and femaleness are meaningful, objective, and empirical realities. This is simply not the case.
The problem is not the inconsistency between our gender and our sex. The problem is that we have bought into an excessively narrow view of gender.
The notion of what it means to be female, or what it means to be male, is extremely broad (or ought to be — every boy need not be a deer hunter). Many of my characteristics are consistent with male stereotypes; many are consistent with female stereotypes.
In fact, there should be no singular conception of what it means to be masculine or feminine. In my view, instead of physical surgery to attempt to change biological gender, we instead need to adjust our thinking about what it means to be masculine and feminine in our modern world.
I am a human — in a male body. Nonetheless, it is a male body; it is what it is. My primary challenge is to define my human experience in such a way that I can be comfortable with my innate interests and characteristics, regardless of my anatomy.
Today, I still enjoy reading an Austen novel. The movies, not so much. But that is not important. Instead, I have allowed my humanness to transcend my gender.
[Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City (Penn.) College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.]